Magazine article National Defense

Battlefield Networks: Soldiers on the Move Have Yet to Profit from Information Age

Magazine article National Defense

Battlefield Networks: Soldiers on the Move Have Yet to Profit from Information Age

Article excerpt

Army combat brigades during the past two years have been outfitted with the latest communications and networking technology. But the improved connectivity available to brigade commanders and staffs has yet to filter down to smaller mobile units--below the battalion level.

Unlike brigade headquarters, which stale in one place for extended periods, smaller units typically are dispersed, and frequently are on the move. The command-and-control and communications systems the Army is buying for the brigades are not small or mobile enough for dismounted soldiers, nor do they have enough range or capacity for data to stream down to thousands of troops who are scattered across hundreds of miles.

In Iraq, commanders have questioned why the Army is not extending the network down to lower echelons, and even down to the individual soldier.

"The network needs to get situational awareness below battalion and company level," said Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Turner II, commander of the Army 101st Airborne Division and former chief of the Multinational Division North in Iraq.

"We are not fielded now with the kind of bandwidth going down to that level. We probably need that," he said, speaking at a conference of the Association of the U.S. Army.

Infantry troops in Iraq are issued voice-communications devices, such as push-to-talk FM radios. But that is not the technology the Army had in mind for the information age. Army leaders have spoken for years about their intent to provide Internet connectivity to the entire force, down to the individual soldier. The Internet protocol, or IP, can deliver voice and data from a single device, such as a software-programmable radio.

The closest the Army has come to having an IP network at the squad level is in the "land warrior" system. The land warrior ensemble includes a communications and navigation computer-radio suite, a helmet-mounted display and a customized rifle. The land warriors are connected to a network, and each can pinpoint the other soldiers' locations by simply looking at his display. They are the dismounted equivalent of the "blue-force tracking" system the Army employs aboard vehicles.

"Land warrior enables IP to the soldier level," said Brig. Gen. Jeffery W. Foley, director of architecture operations at Army headquarters. "We finally have enabled the technology to give platoon, squad leaders and company commanders the situational awareness."

The land warrior radio, called Microlight, is a line-of-sight device that can transmit and receive voice and data such as maps, photos and video. But one major shortcoming in the land warrior net is that it has limited bandwidth--a problem that is found across the Army and is not unique to this program.

"There is immense competition for the EPLRS waveform," Foley said, referring to the enhanced position location and reporting system network. Just within a single battalion, too many users are drawing on a limited supply of EPLRS connectivity.

"Depending on where the competition is, we have to figure out how to program it, and determine priority users," said Foley. The upshot for land warrior is that the net has to be restricted to only a few dismounted soldiers, and they have to carefully ration the bandwidth so they can maintain both voice and data communications.

The communications capabilities of land warrior recently were tested in a field experiment by the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division in Fort Lewis, Wash. The battalion wants to take 230 land warrior ensembles to Iraq sometime in 2007.

Maj. Keith Markham, the battalion's executive officer, said the land warrior radios offer reliable voice communications. During the experiment at Fort Lewis, he told reporters, the EPLRS radio was the only means of voice communications available below the platoon level. The dismounted soldiers minimize the use of bandwidth by staying relatively close to the Stryker vehicles, and they only transmit data to the vehicle. …

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